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In Prince Rupert, Scarce Fish Mean Hungry Winter

Jobless rate soars, union seeks EI 'dignity.'

Tom Sandborn 6 Nov 2006TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee, with a focus on labour and health care issues.

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'Worst season ever'

It's shaping up to be a tough winter for workers in Prince Rupert this year, say local politicians and union spokespeople who are calling on federal and provincial governments to take steps to respond to the crisis.

Without action, workers in the city face "all the terrible impacts of poverty," said Joy Thorkelson, a city councillor and local rep for the fishers' union. Thorkelson predicts unemployment rates in her city will hit 15 to 20 per cent this winter, with rates in nearby First Nations communities likely to rise as high as 80 per cent.

Thorkelson and fellow union members are calling on the government to change the number of employment hours required for a worker to qualify for EI. They argue the current level, 560 hours, might be appropriate in other parts of the northern B.C. EI region like the oilfields on the eastern edge of the province, where the economy is booming, or even in the centre of the province where the forestry industry is busy harvesting pine beetle infested lumber, but not on the coast, where fishers and shore workers have seen "the worst season ever."

"We had around 1300 members work at least one shift this season, down from previous years when that number was closer to 2,000. Most didn't get much work. Only 70 of those workers got enough hours in to qualify for Employment Insurance," Thorkelson told The Tyee.

'Dignity Campaign'

The United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union/CAW has launched a "Dignity Campaign" including petitions, lobbying and local gatherings to pressure government to act on the EI reform.

The loss of work for Thorkelson's membership reflects the almost total collapse of pink salmon runs up and down the B.C. coast and up into Alaska, the failure of the local crab fishery, and DFO-imposed limitations on the sockeye fishery. In addition to fisheries losses, the industry in Prince Rupert has been hurt, Thorkelson says, by federal government failure to impose "adjacency" regulations that would require large fish companies to process more of their catch in Prince Rupert, rather than shipping it to Vancouver, Portland or even China.

Prince Rupert mayor Herb Pond agrees that the region used to set EI qualification rates is too large.

"What we have in Prince Rupert," Pond told The Tyee, "is a population of people who have worked hard and contributed to the EI program, and now can't access benefits because they share a region with super-heated economies. There is a crisis in Prince Rupert this winter, especially for people who depend on fishing and processing for most of their income. Then, of course, the losses there have spinoff effects in small business and retail, as there's just less money around."

Pond supported the union suggestion welfare rates should be increased, saying that when people need help, they should get "good help."

Economic fate?

While they agree on the need for changes in EI entitlement and welfare rates, Mayor Pond and Thorkelson have different views on the future of the economy for this northern port city.

Pond sees current difficulties as temporary. "We know our future is bright. Our economy is about to take off, but not this winter. This situation is temporary. The container port being built means lots of new jobs and economic development. We're only looking for a temporary response to this winter's difficulties."

Thorkelson, on the other hand, is more cautious about future prospects. "Everybody has the idea we're dripping with jobs. The first phase of the port will bring in around 100 jobs, not thousands. The port will add jobs, but for now, Prince Rupert still depends on commercial fishing, the biggest private employer on the coast."

A parliamentary report tabled last year, "Restoring Financial Governance and Accessibility in the Employment Insurance Program," included a call for a single standard across the country for all applicants for EI. The new standard would qualify any worker who accumulated 360 hours of paid work in a season.

The Dignity Campaign calls on Parliament to pass a private members' bill that would implement the new qualifying level of hours worked, as well as many of the other reforms suggested by the parliamentary subcommittee last year.

Push to raise welfare rates

The United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union/CAW is also pushing the provincial government to raise welfare rates by 50 per cent and eliminate the three-week waiting period for new welfare applicants. The union points out that welfare rates have remained steady for over 12 years now while the cost of living has increased every year.

But Thorkelson is careful to emphasize that her members, first of all, want work. They call for reforms to EI and welfare to protect the many workers who are driven out of the workforce by shifts in the fishery and other elements of the economy, but they are far more interested in changes in licensing and adjacency agreements that would create more fish-processing jobs during the winter and in federal jobs projects that would also create more off-season work.

Thorkelson says she is planning to apply for federal job project money to improve walking trails in the Prince Rupert area. She made a similar request last year, which was rejected.

"We believe all workers prefer to be working," says Thorkelson.

Hungry students

Marty Bowles is a Prince Rupert teacher and union official who supports the Dignity Campaign. He says his fellow teachers have an opportunity to see the impacts of the Prince Rupert crisis up close every day in their classrooms.

"Too many kids are coming to school hungry," he said. "At one of our schools, over 90 per cent of the parents are unemployed.

"The mainstream media continues to call Prince Rupert a boomtown, and that's just not true," Bowles added.

"It could take a decade to get back to where we were 10 years ago," Bowles said. "The talk about a booming economy is a slap in the face to people who will struggle to get through the winter this year."

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